A number of incidents in the last week have caused me to dwell on the nature of political apathy within the English psyche. There is something within us that is just too polite to object. Whether it is a fellow train passenger with his boots on the seat or being vilely abused by capitalist financial panzer divisions, the reaction is the same. We mutter to ourselves, raise our eyebrows and put the kettle on! Next time, we will definitely say something but we don’t.
Last week, I went to a stranger’s house to buy a bicycle and she had a ferocious and grumpy dog tied to a table leg. Clearly, from moment one, it wanted to kill me and, fully stretched, its dripping jaws were about 2 inches from my groin. The owner just bellowed above it, as if this were entirely reasonable behaviour, before finally saying ‘sorry, she is a bit excited’. It occurred to me, with the proximity of its velociraptor like teeth to my ‘gentleman’s area’ that, had I been excited myself, I would have spent my remaining Saturday evenings watching the X Factor and peeing through a tube. I didn’t say anything though. I just tried to convey my concern through a constipated facial expression and increasingly terrified grunts.
Only days later, and this is a very English tale, I was at a presentation in town sat next to a middle aged woman with a bald patch and bulging eyes that suggested a recent encounter with a proctologist. Being polite, I said ‘good afternoon’ and smiled reassuringly. It was a smile that said ‘I am safe and decent. I won’t burp in your ear, smell anti-social, laugh behind your back or ask you what colour knickers you are wearing. We are all cool here’. That’s all, a polite smile and a ‘good afternoon’. Within three minutes, through hushed and urgent tones, I knew that she had recently had a breakdown, was a recovering alcoholic and that her husband left her when she refused to carry on complying with his ‘unusual and challenging intimate requirements.’ I sat in stunned disbelief and stared ahead hoping that one of us would either leave the room or die. All I could muster was a nod and a sympathetic ‘bummer’. It immediately occurred to me that she may take my desperate utterance for uninvited speculation as to the nature of her husband’s ‘unusual and challenging intimate requirements.’ It was a long meeting and, inside, I wept like a child. However, I said nothing. Is there another nation on earth that would tolerate an encounter like that without bellowed objections, thrown chairs or at least a change of seating. No, I don’t think there is.
If all this seems irrelevant then I apologise but the point I am groping around for is that we allow ourselves to be treated so badly by a succession of politicians, the financial ruling elite and a corrupt media because we don’t like to make a fuss. Thirty years of uninterrupted neo-liberal governance has eviscerated our rights, wedged the wealth gap further open, sold off the utilities that our parents owned, killed millions in the name of ‘democracy’ and further cemented the position of the ruling classes. Tuition fees for our children are casually trebled, they demonstrate and we allow them to be demonised. People from 4th generation benefit families, dirt poor, abused, abandoned and loathed kick off for a few nights and we allow them to be battered into submission through the exploitation of a sympathetic judicial system. Last week, a wheelchair bound man was dragged before the courts to answer the charge of looting. Imagine being poor, unable to use your legs and probably looking at giving up a proportion of your benefits to compensate billionaire financers. How bad must that be. He was sent to prison for a year! Whilst in prison he will have the time to read about the shameless and large scale corruption the Defence Minister has been indulging in. I can’t imagine that he will feel any better.
The Greeks take to the streets, the French are usually there already and even the Yanks are fighting back. The Wall Street occupation, in the face of brutal policing and right wing media betrayal, has been a shining beacon. In Britain, we are struggling to put a one day strike together. We have laws and self- interested judges who, with the backing of a vicious press are telling us that a one day strike would be treasonable. When will this servile, unquestioning acceptance finally be bred out of us.
I was talking to an historian recently regarding social unrest throughout Europe in the mid nineteenth century. He talked about army mutiny, overthrown governments, people’s uprisings and large scale rioting and revolt. ‘What happened here?’ I asked, not expecting to be impressed. ‘Oh, we had a bit of a march, letters to The Times that sort of thing’. We have made no progress. There have been moments; 1911 Transport Strike, 60s counter culture and student unrest, militancy in the 70s etc but it does not amount to much. I don’t know what it is. Is it centuries of class repression, a climate too wet to encourage outdoor protest or have they been putting something in the tea? Whatever it is, if we don’t wake up soon, we will be back to sticking our kids up chimneys, sleeping in a cupboard outside the boss’s bed chambers and using horse crap as insulation. We have been asleep for so long and the alarm clock is ringing.